Voices from Solitary: On Hunger Strike in a Pennsylvania Prison

by | December 19, 2023

Dwayne “BIM” Staats is currently on his ninth day of a hunger strike at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Camp Hill, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Staats has been in solitary for about fourteen years altogether, including four years in Pennsylvania and ten in Delaware. Staats represented himself and others against charges associated with the 2017 uprising in the Delaware supermax facility James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. Already facing a sentence to die in prison, Staats was given another life sentence for his alleged involvement in the uprising. 

Staats is the founder of Believing in Myself, LLC and co-founder of Rebellious Hearts, which is a movement for liberation built upon revolutionary, matriarchal, abolitionist, and Black power principles. He is the self-published author of Vaughn 17 Speaks and Rebellious Hearts: When Forced Into a Corner, They Attack. You can follow him on Instagram at @_rebellious_hearts and write to him at Smart Communications/PADOC, Dwayne Staats NT0000, SCI Camp Hill, PO Box 33028, St. Petersburg, FL 33733 or email him on the Connect Network, using his DOC number NT0000. —Valerie Kiebala

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On this day, December 12, 2023, I’m writing to you on day two of my hunger strike. Originally I was incarcerated in Delaware, but after being found guilty with charges associated with the 2017 uprising at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, I was transferred to Pennsylvania. Regardless of what measures I’ve taken toward disrupting an industry that thrives off oppression, my resistance has always been a response to the conditions.

While in solitary confinement, the reactions become more drastic. Ain’t nobody care that the guards wasn’t feeding that man, until he stood in the doorway with blood pouring out an incision the length of his forearm. There was no concern about his anxieties, depression, hallucinations and mental deterioration, until they had to rush in the cell and cut the noose from around his neck. They saw nothing wrong with putting that prisoner in the hole on fabricated charges until he stuck a pen insert in his phallus. I resorted to starving myself because I see no other viable option and I’m determined. I feel so strongly about my position that I’m literally putting my life on the line. I’ll let you judge if the risk is worth it. 

Delaware DOC claims they no longer use long-term solitary confinement. What they’re not saying is they still pay other states to house prisoners in solitary confinement indefinitely. I was transferred to SCI Albion (near Erie, PA) in 2019. I was immediately placed on the Restrictive Release List (RRL) and housed in the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU). I was there for two years and got an in depth realization on how fast solitary confinement warps the mind. Insomnia got the best of a lot of prisoners. One guy ended up having a conversation with imagined people for three days straight. I knew it was real when he started crying to them saying he’s sorry. Others reach a point where the walls are closing in so much that they urinate on the floor and smear feces on themselves. They see a trip to the psychiatric observation cell (POC) as a temporary refuge.

I already mentioned the “cutters,” those who take anything sharp and scrape their skin until it draws blood. One thing that sticks out to me then and now is that you’ll rarely get any problem addressed unless you threaten to kill yourself. Even when you say it, some guards will respond, “Do it!” A lot of the suicides happen because guards made light of the situation and thought the prisoner was bluffing. Honestly, they have no regard for our lives. I still vividly remember when my neighbor committed suicide. The guards that went in and cut him down were in the cell laughing and cracking jokes until the medics came. After medical personnel wheeled him out on a gurney an hour later, another prisoner was placed in that cell. 

I left SCI Albion in 2021 and was sent to SCI Phoenix. This was where Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) was supposed to start a step down program for guys on RRL (long-term solitary confinement) to work their way back to general population. When I got there, no program had yet been implemented. It was the same solitary confinement, but in a different facility. A few months went by and me, my comrades and others that felt the need to respond went on a huge hunger strike. It was in coordination with activists and prisoner advocacy on the outside. They even demonstrated in front of the prison. A week later, PADOC turned one of the blocks into a step down program. My comrades, seven others, and I were sent over there as the first participants. 

It took about three weeks for the guards/staff to get acclimated to us “Delaware guys.” Prior to that, they only knew what was written in the database and what was said in the news. They came to me first when they started handing out jobs. This is how it went. One day I’m locked down in solitary confinement and three weeks later (not three months or three years), I’m coming and going out of my cell at my leisure. I’m cleaning the rest of the pods in the building without guards standing over me. I got general population privileges (unlimited kiosk access, three phone calls a day, two visits a week, able to buy secure packages, population commissary), had all my property in my cell and had a good rapport with the guards and civilian staff that worked the building. I maintained this status for nine months, and I didn’t have one negative interaction or misconduct. The prison review committee at SCI Phoenix recommended that I be sent to general population. 

The day I was notified that I completed the step down was when things took a turn for the worst. First, I was escorted by C.E.R.T. (the Correctional Emergency Response Team) to the hole because I was pending transfer. Nobody else who left the step down got transferred from the hole. Almost two months go by until I finally see that my recommendation for population has been denied and I’m being placed back on RRL. It doesn’t include a reason why. 

Next I’m being transferred to SCI Benner Township and put back in solitary confinement. The administration acts like they don’t know why I’m there, so I can’t get no answer from them. Three months go by and I’m sent to SCI Camp Hill and put in the IMU (Intensive Management Unit). This program is a minimum of three years to complete and upon completion, you are still not guaranteed to go to general population. The IMU is another name for solitary confinement. We only have one box of property, and we can’t wear our own sneakers, sweats, or shorts. Only orange jumpsuits. We get strip searched every time we leave the cell. We’re cuffed every time we leave the cell. We have recreation in a dog kennel. I get only one time a week to use the kiosk, along with two phone calls a week. They’re not letting us eat out our bowls (let that sink in). The group is one hour a week. 

There’s nothing “intensive” about it. I’ve been here almost a year and a half and haven’t participated. (1) won’t nobody tell me why I was sent here (2) why put me back on lockdown instead of keeping me at my same status? Since I’ve been here, I filed a lawsuit, case number 1:22-cv-1962, I’ve written communiques, tried to organize actions, and now I have the 6am-2pm shift lieutenant and sergeant retaliating against me. They started denying me yard in the morning. When I asked “why,” the sergeant smiled and said my light was covered. 

Now, it’s to the point that I don’t even go out in the morning. Matter of fact, nobody on the tiers does. I had a video visit on November 24th. It mysteriously got shut off early and my friend’s name was removed from my visitation list without any stated reason. I just found out my other friend had scheduled a visit for last week, but nobody brought me to the visit room or notified me that I had a visit. On December 8, 2023,  the lieutenant and sergeant moved me into a cell that has no power in it. This cell is filthy. The whole time I’ve been here, it was used to put people in after they got sprayed and cell extracted. Right now, I’m just mentally exhausted and emotionally drained. I don’t have the energy to waste on those two peons.

This hunger strike is not only about bringing attention to my circumstance. It’s also my way to tell the Delaware and Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to stop playing with my well being (yes, they’re in cahoots). I’m demanding to be removed from solitary confinement, transferred to a facility closer to Delaware, get my population privileges restored, given all my property, and to be approved for contact visits. The reality is, I’d rather put my life on the line then let them bury me alive.

Power is the People—BIM

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